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Matthew Leatherman: Debt most dangerous threat now

Tomorrow Mitt Romney will reprise the role of national security strategist at the Wofford College debate after first playing it in an October trip to Charleston. Scene One was set just right, moving from the USS Yorktown to the Citadel, and he hit his lines with the stern gravitas becoming of our security. But so far itís been just an act, one betrayed by the gap between the strategy he advocates and the spending that would support it.
Strategizing is about planning for the world we face, the goals we want to pursue in it, and the influence we can leverage in that effort. At the Citadel, Romney ticked off an expansive list of U.S. interests and grand ambitions for pursing them. That vision is subject to challenge, but thatís not what really tripped Romney up. The former Massachusetts governor had already undercut his casting as a strategist in comments at the USS Yorktown about how to manage the fiscal side of his plan.
ěOver the last few years, weíve had a defense budget, excluding the cost of warfare, at about 3.8 percent of the economy,î Romney noted. ěIíd like that to be a little higher, at about 4 percent.î
More money for more missions makes sense up front. But what about those unfortunate instances when our economy is shrinking? Do our national security interests change whenever thereís a recession? On the other hand, where is the strategic connection between Romneyís global ambitions and a military budget equal to 4 percent of our economy?
There isnít one. And, of course, our interests donít recede just because the economy contracts.
Pegging defense spending to the economy says far more about our financial vitality than it does about our security. But thatís not really the point behind the figure. Knowing that our economy grows far more than it shrinks, advocates for continually inflating the Pentagonís coffers often use this bit of information to avoid fiscal discipline.
Romneyís rivals quickly saw through this act. Writing a day later in Politico, John Huntsman aptly noted that ěRomney has called for adherence to a rigid level of defense spending.î Huntsman continued: ěThat sort of thinking, especially at a time when our country is streaking toward unsustainable levels of debt, is flawed.î
Several very important insights follow from that critique. A vital element of our national security is the range of choice we enjoy. Being flexible as our goals and our world change serves our security far better than turning it over to formulas. A key part of that flexibility is appreciating the balance between national and economic security and managing it adeptly.
That balance becomes much clearer by switching lenses from defense as a share of the economy to its real dollar value. Granting Romneyís decision to set todayís war costs aside, our national defense spending in 2011 was a bit lower than total expenditures at the peaks of Korea and Vietnam and the climax of the Cold War. But add war costs back in so that the comparisons are equal and it shows that the 2011 tab topped each of those periods by roughly 20 percent.
So here are the real questions for tomorrowís debate. First, are we less secure today than when we faced the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation, so much so that we need to spend a fifth more on national defense? And, second, does such a dramatic boost in national defense expenditures make sense given our recent recession, still-sluggish growth, and ballooning government debt?
Admiral Mike Mullen, who retired this fall as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesnít think so. Mullen reiterated time and again throughout the last year of his tenure that ěthe single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt.î He was just as forthright about why the Pentagon has to participate in overcoming this challenge. ěThis budget has basically doubled in the last decade,î he observed. ěIn that doubling, we’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.î
Being president is about making truly tough choices. How much military spending is necessary to guarantee our security? When do additional Pentagon expenditures bloat the government more than provide for our defense? What does fiscal discipline mean when it comes to the military?
The national defense policy Mitt Romney staked out earlier in the Lowcountry doubtless is going to be popular because it glossed over those tough choices. But that sounds a lot like playing the strategist rather than being one. Scene Two a Wofford tomorrow will show just how naturally this role as national security strategist comes to Romney, Huntsman, and their fellow Republican candidates.

Salisbury native Matthew Leatherman is an analyst with the Washington, D.C.,-based Stimson Centerís project on budgeting for foreign affairs and defense and a contributor to its blog, The Will and the Wallet.

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